A Question on Catcalls

In the last 24 hours, I’ve gotten a couple new comments on my post from a while back, Why Catcalls Feel Threatening. One from a woman defending my points, and another from a man attempting to refute them.

Aside from the part where I’m extremely tired of trying to explain things over and over again, I thought I’d bring this man’s point out into the open and see what the rest of you think about it and the extensions of catcalls into generality.

His point, distilled down to a basic level, is that loud compliments are not threatening.

My point, very simply, is that they are.

He differentiates between what he calls loud compliments and the more extreme sorts of verbal threats that occur in street harassment. I’ll let you go read all the comments on the post to decide for yourself if such things deserve a distinction.

I wouldn’t even be dredging this post out of the archives right now if I hadn’t had two distinct instances of street harassment happen to me in the past seven days. Both were unsettling.

The first happened Saturday night. I had to walk home from work because no one was available at work to give me a lift, and my husband wasn’t answering his phone to come pick me up. As I’ve said before, it is a ten minute walk across a brightly lit, open-til-midnight strip mall and then half a block down a darker side street that leads to my apartment building.

I got to the light to cross the final street to home, and there were two guys standing there with a 24-pack of beer they’d just bought from the beer store.

Let me stop and tell you that is a situation that immediately makes me uncomfortable. It was around 11 at night, and it was on a busy street. And yet my alarms started going off. The gentleman refuting my prior post would say I was pre-judging or overreacting already. Let me also preface this encounter with what I was wearing, because some people find that sort of shit relevant. I was wearing loose-fitting corduroy trousers and a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over my head (it was cold, and when I have to walk home, I always aim for nondescript). I carry myself with purpose, and I’m always alert to my surroundings.

The second I began to cross the street, they started talking in Spanish about me. I happen to understand Spanish, so situations like that are even more bothersome because either they don’t expect me to understand and then say whatever nasty little thing is on their mind or they don’t care if I understand — either way is worrisome. Then they started hollering stuff at me and making kissy noises. They started to follow me across the second street, but when I got out my phone, they veered back over but kept making noises and yelling stuff.

That was the first incident.

The second happened in broad daylight. I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for a bus (like you do) and playing Fruit Ninja on my phone. Again, clearly minding my own business like any other human on the planet. A guy walked down the street on the opposite side, then looked at me and goes, “Oh, look at this little snow bunny. Mmmm.” I was the only person in a one block radius, so he had to be talking to/about me. He continued to make some comments, then walked the remaining half a block to his apartment (yay, this guy’s my neighbour), paused in the stairwell, and made a big, “Come inside” gesture.


Both of those instances did not result in violence, only a lot of discomfort, and in the first case, anxiety and early flickers of fear until they veered back to their side of the street. But days later they’re still on my mind. At first I didn’t know what the second guy meant by snow bunny — then I found out from some friends at work that it’s a derogatory term for a white girl. In some areas it doesn’t carry a negative connotation, but it’s still a racially-charged term applied to women who hang around African-American men at its most mild.

In both instances I was almost aggressively minding my own business. I could be in no way construed as “asking for” attention in any way. And in both instances, these were a far cry from a loud, “YOU LOOK BEAUTIFUL TODAY,” which, in my opinion, is still creepy when yelled by a stranger from across a street.

In thinking about these instances as opposed to the “loud compliment” idea, I have to conclude that in my experience, “loud compliments” are almost never the case. I can’t remember the last time a catcall consisted of a simple, “YOU LOOK HOT” from distance. And even those make me feel uncomfortable, because they draw more attention than just my own. I don’t want to be singled out in public for my looks, whether the attention is perceived by the giver as positive or negative.

For me, catcalls of any kind are a very negative experience. Sometimes intensely so. “Damn, girl!” or “Hey, sexy!” are also not “loud compliments.” Those are invasive.

Here is a quote from my previous post:

Catcalls make me feel unsafe because not only are they dismissing my right to get from one place to another and mind my own business, but they are a very simple display of dominance. And they are aggressive by nature. They DEMAND attention.

Here’s where I’m going to solicit opinions. Because this issue is specifically regarding women and how women feel about catcalls, I’m going to make a request that only women respond to the poll questions that follow. I will put the results together in a post next week (or possibly after Thanksgiving).

For me, all of the women I have asked in person say that catcalls make them very uncomfortable, even “loud compliments” that don’t escalate. What that says to me is that defending “loud compliments” is doing nothing more than defending men who make women uncomfortable, knowing that they make women uncomfortable. Trying to dismiss women’s concern about these things is nothing more than sexism at its basest form. If an action makes someone uncomfortable, and people continue to knowingly propagate said action and defend those who perform it, that puts those who are performing and defending the action in the wrong. At the mildest, it’s bullying.

My bottom line is that if a behaviour makes someone feel threatened or unsafe, the behaviour needs to stop.

Here goes:

And because there’s no poll that will substitute for your words, I am going to make a request that you sound off in the comments.

This question is for women:

What has been your experience with catcalls? How do they make you feel? 


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on November 14, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.

  1. I’m not a girl, but I will say Emmie, that I’m sorry this happened to you. You are a smart, beautiful and classy lady and deserve to be treated as such. That said, I don’t get the cat calls by guys at all. (I might have said that already) and still don’t. My step daughter is a beautiful 11 yr old girl, but she often looks 16 or 17. Not because she wears skimpy clothes. It’s just how she carries herself. She’s tall and has really long hair and just a mature face. There have been times we have been out somewhere, I turn my back for a second and some guy in his 40’s is talking to her. This is where I wouldn’t hesitate to put a guy in a guillotine or rear naked choke….fortunately the times this has happened the guys were smart enough to walk away when they see me walk back over with her. Each time, it has made her felt uncomfortable, and it set my dad-radar into over drive.

    • Yeah, I had things like that happen to me starting at age 11 or 12 too. Even if a girl looks 16, that’s still horrid. I still remember how embarrassed and nervous it made me.

      And just an FYI, I edited your above comment to redact a phrase that really bothers me.

  2. I couldn’t answer the first question because it’s not black and white for me. I’ve had guys ask me in a store or something if I’m married. Sometimes when I tell them yes, they just smile and say, “I thought so,” like they’re disappointed. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable there is trying to turn them down without hurting feelings. Once when I said yes I was married, the guy asked, “Are you happy?” I don’t remember if you follow me or not but I’ve posted a lot lately about my geriatric stalker. This old man does not care that I have told him to back off numerous times, and he seems to TRY to make me uncomfortable. But for the most part, I agree, the guy you mentioned is merely defending his right to be a pig.

    • Maybe I’ll rephrase the question a little. I didn’t want to include a sometimes answer because it’s far too vague.

      I’ve had the married question multiple times. And people have said they didn’t care. Which is so disrespectful. Ugh. And the follow up of “are you happy” is even worse.

      I don’t think the guy on the previous post is a pig, just that he’s unwilling to accept that even what he calls “loud compliments” can be and often are threatening and make women uncomfortable, which is a barrier to understanding why I and others are upset by them.

  3. Paula, The Geeky Shopaholic

    I work in retail, and in working with the pubic, I get “hit on” a lot. I don’t enjoy it. Having random strangers, mostly teenage boys or dirty old men, tell me that I’m pretty or hot doesn’t make me feel good about myself. I just find it annoying. I’m there to do a job, I don’t care what people think about how I look. And I don’t like some strange man standing one inch from me and staring down at my boobs while he asks me where the dog food aisle is. When you work with the public, men seem to think it’s okay to ask you all kinds of personal questions too, anything from “are you married?” to “where do you live?” Am I really not suppose to find that last one just a little creepy coming from a complete stranger? Luckily, I’ve never felt threatened, but it does make me uncomfortable.

    • Yeah, discomfort is still a negative result of this sort of thing. That’s the minimum I end up with when it happens, the max (thus far) being pulse-pounding fear when two guys were following me in a vehicle and trying to get me to get in with them, then chased me and cut me off once before finally leaving.

  4. Em, I agree with you 2,000%. It IS designed to put you in a one-down sort of place. It IS a power play. It IS intimidation. It IS bullying. Your reactions are on target and completely appropriate! A duck is a duck is a duck….

  5. They make me very uncomfortable, nervous and anxious and I think when a few guys are doing it, they get off on the fear and anxiety they cause. The world is so full of horror and violence these days, it’s never far from my mind that such a situation can escalate into something more physical and horrific.
    I worked in a pub for years and you have to put up with a lot of shite from drunk and not so drunk idiots.

    • Yeah, that’s where I sit on the spectrum as well. Any attention like that is unwelcome for me.

      I work in a bar/restaurant, and I deal with the same stuff. Not as much in this new place, but just two days ago I had a table that went too far with the insinuations and jokes.

  6. For the most part, “loud compliments” haven’t ever bothered me a lot, but it very much depends on surroundings and the individual(s) involved. I’ve had instances where just being smiled at has sent up warning flags and made me cross the street in broad daylight and others where the comments have caused me to smile and return a wave to the commenter. The two instances you mention would most definitely make my radar go off, though. Those are far beyond the guy who’s hollering because he thinks he’s cool and is trying to get attention or showing off for his buddies. Not to condemn all guys, but so many think they’re irresistible and self-centered enough they don’t stop to think about what they sound like or have any clue how uncomfortable, at the least, it can make women feel.

    You mentioned in your earlier post you’d like to take karate but it was expensive. Check with your police department – they often offer sessions in self-defense for women free of charge. Since I worked in law enforcement and had judo and self defense training, I know it helps with the self-confidence.

    • Exactly. Sometimes even just a smile or body language is enough to make my brain scream at me. When words are added, it just speeds up that process most of the time.

      I will definitely look into free self-defense classes around here. My ultimate goal is to get a black belt, but that will have to start sometime down the road.

  7. You know, one of the huge benefits for me of getting older and greyer has been the slow but steady decrease in the types of behaviour you’re describing. It’s not that age will stop it from happening, but the frequency diminishes, and a walk down the street can now be (nine times out of ten) just a walk down the street.

    Now I watch my daughter go through all the shit I used to go through–the host of “compliments,” lewd remarks, cat calls, and other crap that theoretically are put out there to let her know how pretty, sexy and wonderful she is. And, you know, she IS pretty and sexy and wonderful, but when I watch her cringe under the onslaught of these remarks, and when I hear her talk about those remarks escalating into threatening situations when she doesn’t display the requisite politeness and gratitude, it becomes abundantly clear that her prettiness, sexiness and wonderfulness have precisely zero relevance. This is about control, end of story.

    • I agree with you wholeheartedly. When someone decides to express an opinion on my looks that way, it always feels like it’s a question of dominance. It’s chest beating — I never actually feel like it’s about me.

  8. Yes, catcalls make me uncomfortable. I tend to ignore and flee with as much outward confidence as possible. They are designed to make the guy doing it feel superior and dominant over the female. Equally as disturbing, and what I encounter more than catcalls are leers from drivers ~ typically at stoplights. Looks are fine ~ they’re natural and normal ~ but leers are treatening and there isn’t even sound involved.

    The guy that responded to your first post can’t really understand a female perspective to the catcall because he isn’t female. There’s no male equivalent to that experience. Now if he ever got a catcall from another man who was physically stronger then himself ~ say in prison or something ~ he may understand the woman’s perspective on the catcall. It’s all about dominance ~ not compliments.

    These men may think that they’re being benign or throwing us a bone or whatever ~ the fact is, it doesn’t matter the intention. Not at all.

    We are designed, as human beings, to instinctively assess threat for pure survival. So, when a catcall comes and your heart races and you feel threatened and you flee ~ your body is telling you that what you are experiencing is a threat. There’s no arguement against that because it’s built right in.

    Sorry you had that happen to you ~ totally sucks..and, frankly, it pisses me off.

  9. Anecdote!

    Years ago, I lived in the second floor of a shitball apartment building. There were literally three bars on my block, and if I wanted some 2 am entertainment, I could watch the cops mace the kids as they came storming out of the bars. My next door neighbor was this bloated old guy named Buck. Buck would sit in his window sill and catcall the college girls as they passed by. Most would ignore him. A few would be drunk enough to stay and talk for awhile, though God knows why. Sooner or later, he’d ask them to “come on up,” I can only presume to be roofied and dismembered. I never said anything because Buck owned guns. Lots of guns.

    I remember one particular instance where I listened to him “sweet-talk” this girl for about half an hour. He was just launching into his “why don’t you come on up” rap* when some college guy put his arm around the girl and hauled her away. At which point his catcalls became “c’mon up, huh? Where you goin’ huh, where you going bitch? YOU FUCKING BITCH! I’LL KILL YOU!”

    Since then I’ve never been able to see catcalls as anything BUT threatening, myself. Even if they’re well-meaning.

    * Had a Freudian typo of “rape” here

  10. Honestly, I had trouble answering the third poll, but the truth is, any loud compliment is a catcall in my book. I don’t mind someone approaching and complimenting me in a setting where that kind of thing is more appropriate (at a party, out dancing, etc.). If they aren’t willing to come up to me and give me a compliment politely, then either the setting probably isn’t appropriate or they’re actually trying to make me uncomfortable (or they’re socially inept).

    Sorry you have to deal with so much of this.

    • I always wonder if it’s just this area. Specifically, my path to work. Because it just gets absurd.

      I agree with you — any loud compliment is a catcall in my eyes. I am with you 100%. If someone approaches me politely (and more importantly, takes any expression of a lack of interest on my part without reverting to toddlerdom), I don’t have a problem with it. But yelling at me at all, for any reason, with any words — never did it for me, and I don’t expect to magically become okay with it any time soon.

  11. I think you hit on it (no pun intended) in your post when you said something about “invading space.” Catcalls aren’t 100% thumbs up or thumbs down for me. However, most of them do lead to a feeling of discomfort because their volume and aggressive language (yes, language can be aggressive) invade my space as much as if that guy crowded too close in the grocery line. I guess the kinds I didn’t mind were not loud, the guy wasn’t drunk or with a bunch of buddies, and he actually used language that could be considered complimentary.

  12. In addition to the other very valid points already made by fellow commenters, my problem with the catcall/loud compliment is the attention it draws from every other male in the vicinity. Not to say that the catcall is not threatening in and of itself, but when it happens on a busy street and every male within earshot turns around to look at what they “hope” is a pretty girl, who’s to say one of them isn’t going to then follow you because now his attention is on you.

    • Thank you for commenting — that is another big point that I was pondering this morning. Not only does it demand attention from the recipient, but it also calls the attention from everyone else in earshot. Very few people want a street’s worth of eyes on them.

  13. I’m 38 & a Cis-gendered woman. I hate catcalls. Why can’t I just go about my business without having other people’s feelings about my appearance (or whatever trait) thrust upon me against my will?

    It’s invasive, aggressive and it is a type of dominance behavior. It demands my attention, which I don’t want to give. And if I ignore the catcallers they act-up. Often with degrading & threatening language.

    Someone who excuses catcalling is just trying to say that men have a right to dominate women and make them uncomfortable. Even strangers in the street. How is that okay?

    • Thank you for commenting.

      That’s the exact question I want to ask as well. Why can’t I walk the short distance between my home and my job without incident? And you’re right — ignoring it often makes it worse. Aside from the two incidents I discussed in this post, a couple weeks ago some guy started following me and yelling at me. When I ignored him, he started yelling louder, calling me a bitch, and only stopped when I stopped, took out my phone, and started to dial 911.

      • I can’t walk to my mailbox without that damn Old Man lurking in his doorway. He just stares blatantly…but how can you get a guy in trouble for watching you from his own window or door. Here’s my question to you on the specific item of random approaches… It’s possible for a guy to be completely polite but still make you feel uncomfortable when he approaches you (I use “you” in the general here, not YOU specifically.) I mean, it an be uncomfortable for the fact that you’re married or maybe just don’t want to hurt feelings…or even if someone you find physically repugnant hits on you but does it in a polite and genuine way. Do you find that situation bothersome? I mean, if a guy were to see you and just want to try to get a date or something, would you rather he didn’t bother you at all?

      • If I’m at a bar or somewhere social and someone approaches me, that’s fine. But if they won’t back off when I tell them I’m married, then I get really bothered. On the street, I find it…annoying. But again, if they treat me respectfully and don’t make some comment about not caring that I’m married, whatever. I’ve found, however, that guys who approach me out of the blue on the street don’t actually much care what I have to say at all — if I’m not interested, they get mad or rude. That’s only my experience though. Other people could have gone their whole lives without that problem.

        Also, I’m usually fine with chatting to someone I meet, but if they’re acting like they have overtly sexual interest in me and I’ve already told them I’m not interested or available, I start getting past discomfort and into anxiety.

  14. As women, I think we should be asking another question.

    Do males suffer similar treatment? (Not the same treatment, but similar, as in, put into a vulnerable position because of who they are?)

    No, they don’t. At least, not at the same scale that women do. For that very reason alone, the practice is abhorrent. And you are right, catcalls are a means of control and dominance, nothing more.

    I’m sorry that you are targeted so often.

  15. It hasn’t happened to me in years – one benefit of aging. My own experience with them has always been negative. I would ignore the catcall, which then escalated to, “Are you too good to say thank you? Bitch!” or “Why don’t you stop and talk to me?” Things like like that.

    THAT is threatening. It’s a very scary thing, even on a public street.

  16. I’ve had people yell “compliments” out of a car and then pull up to me on the street as I was walking. It’s very very uncomfortable and threatening. I think it’s demeaning, disrespectful, and hateful. There is absolutely nothing friendly about it.

  17. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Telling me I’ve got a “fantastic pair” or some such comment, is no compliment – it is threatening and derogatory behaviour. I don’t comment on their physical attributes and tell them they’ve got a lovely “pair”, and nor would I ever. I feel that this acceptance of the sexualisation of women has created a world where I don’t feel safe in the presence of strange men if I’m on my own, and I know most women would agree.

    Just yesterday in fact, I was leaving a friend’s house and another friend pulled up in their car. I walked over to say hi as a group of young lads came out of the block of flats opposite. As they walked past, one of them said “It’s like a page 3 model, innit” and another yelled “alright darling” at me. I felt too scared to say anything as there were more of them than me, but to yell that as I was saying hello to a friend is threatening and offensive. (To clarify: I was wearing a T-shirt, blazer and scarf so I was not provocatively dressed). Those comments, in terms of the actual words, are technically not threatening, but to have total strangers leer at you and say things is. That’s the difference – and that’s the crux of the problem, because it’s all too easy to dismiss the complaints as “overreacting” or some such nonsense.

    I have plenty of banter with my male friends, but we know the boundaries and they would never sexualise me in the way that unknown men feel it’s okay to do as I’m just walking past. It has created a culture of fear, where women have to walk home with their keys in their hand, pepper spray in their bag and a rape alarm close to hand. If we continue to say that leaning out of vans and catcalling is “harmless”, then at what point does it stop? Because one day it won’t be some cocky teenager yelling a “compliment”, it will be someone far more dangerous. And then who will be overreacting?

  18. As the mother of a young woman who works in a metropolitan area, and as a former restaurant and beverage worker myself, I have much to say about this, but will try to keep it short.

    Cat calls and verbally invasive remarks, with or without overtly sexual overtones are very frightening. I had a man in Austin yell something to me from a curb one night as I was leaving work to go home at 3 am, and a second later, he had his hand on my car door and was attempting to climb in. I laid on my horn, and the streets still had people on them and were well lit, so he fell back and I left when the light changed, but that experience was never forgotten. I also had guys yell things from their cars to me as I was in my car, and then start following me. I would drive to the police station, if I knew where it was and it was close, or go directly to a 24 hour quick-stop store, point at their car, and pretend to be writing down their license number. We didn’t have cell phones in those days.

    I used to work for a women’s abuse recovery agency. We had abuse continuums for people to consult, to see if what they were experiencing was abusive. Jokes and verbal aggression were on every one of the continuums-emotional, physical, sexual, and social. Nothing would ever make me argue with that. I spent much of my life feeling afraid because of the very things this blog is addressing. Hats off to Emily and all of you for talking freely about these things. Never doubt yourselves, or as I taught my daughter, trust your gut.

  19. I just thought of something along the line of catcalls. Maybe not on the same level or feel as threatening but it is plenty uncomfortable and can be scary. In my city we often deal with pandhandlers. A lot like you, there have been numerous times I was minding my own business, walking to a store, sitting in traffic and someone comes up askng me for money. There have been times I’ve had some change on me and I’ll give it to them if I am inclined I usually dont’ carry cash and/or am in a hurry as I hate going to stores. One night I was trying to pick up something for my wife, went to 5 different stores and was accosted at every single store. Some make a shitty comment when you tell them no, or just keep walking. As if I’m the asshole because I cant’ or won’t give them money.

    One day I was sitting in traffic at a light, just sitting and a guy came and tapped on my window and asked me for money. I told him I didnt’ have any on me, so he calls me a motherfucker and starts pounding on my jeep with a big plastic coffee mug in his hand, first on the glass, then on the side and the back. FInally the light changed and I could hightail it out of there, but I had no idea what that asshole was going to do. There are also some small dents and scratches from where he was pounding. Simply because I didn’t have a dollar to give him, as if I somehow owed it to him.

    As in the catcall situation, is it too much to ask for me or anyone to go pump gas, sit at a light, go from point A to point B without being asked for money by some stranger, or multiple strangers, then yelled at, threatened or have your car vandalized because you didn’t give money to some person whom you don’t know nor owe anything to. Anyway, not sure what made me think of that but thought I’d share.

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